IROQUOIS FALLS - It appears defence could be the strength of the 2014-15 Abitibi Eskimos.
With training camp at the Whitney Arena in Timmins less than a month away, Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne expects to have at least three of the five veteran blue-liners eligible to return to be back with the team.
Captain Kevin Walker (56, 3-10-13, 44), Brennan Roy (56, 9-23-32, 36) and Kealey Cummings (56, 7-17-24, 53) will anchor the Eskimos’ blue-line.
Walker, a Timmins native, and Cummings, from Iroquois Falls, will be entering their fourth seasons with the team, while Roy, also an Iroquois Falls native, is coming off his rookie season in the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League.
“At the start of the year, you know they are going to play a little bit more than normal, because they have experience with our program and they know everything about it,” Gagne said.
“It certainly helps for the first 10 games of the season to have experience back there.”
Having three veteran blue-liners back will allow the coach to have experience in all three of his defensive pairings, if he so chooses.
“They show leadership, as well,” Gagne said.
“It is good to pair them with another player to help them out, regarding our program, but also in the dressing room, off the ice, it is good for them to show leadership. It is a bonus to have some returning players like that.”
The Eskimos might actually have more than three veteran blue-liners in the lineup for the 2014-15 campaign.
Gagne expects Timmins native Ryan Kerr (52, 3-19-22, 42) to return for his third full NOJHL season, but he has yet to hear confirmation from the player.
In addition, Jamey Lauzon (49, 2-16-18, 82), who enjoyed a successful rookie season with the Eskimos in 2013-14, may be back if he does not stick with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights.
Lauzon was drafted by the Knights in the 12th round of the OHL Priority Selection in 2013.
Having a strong defence will be a key for the Eskimos, given that they will have two new goalies between the pipes for 2014-15.
Iroquois Falls native Sylvain Miron (1823:14, 3.36, .903, 15-16-0) had a solid and at times spectacular rookie campaign and was eligible to return, but he will be attending university instead.
The team’s other puck stopper, Brody Wagner, is too old for junior hockey.
Up front, fan-favourite Ryan Tront (56, 16-37-53, 46) headlines the small group of forwards who have confirmed they will be back.
Tront has a season-and-a-half of experience in the NOJHL and is effective in all three zones.
Gagne hopes to have the Eskimos’ leading scorer, Brady Clouthier (50, 30-36-66, 58), an Arnprior native, back in the lineup, but he has not yet received confirmation from the player.
The same is true of checking forward David Becker (31, 3-11-14, 19), who hails from Waterloo, Iowa.
A return of Iroquois Falls native Brenden Locke (56, 27-28-55, 10) could provide the Eskimos with an offensive boost, but he will be attending training camp with the OHL’s Barrie Colts and has a realistic shot at making the team.
Locke was selected by the Colts in the 14th round of the OHL Priority Selection in 2013.
Iroquois Falls native Marc Dube, like Miron, has opted to attend university and will not be back with the Eskimos in 2014-15.
The only other Eskimos forward eligible to return, Andrew Green, will not be back either.
“He wants to play in B.C., or somewhere in the OJHL (Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League,” Gagne said.
Even if Clouthier, Becker and Locke return, the Eskimos will have a number of openings in the forward ranks.
“We are looking at four, or five returnees for this year, so there are going to be a lot of spots open,” Gagne said.
“Every year, we are always looking for players. Every year, there is always a big turnaround. That’s the way it is when you play up North.
“If you can get at least one-third of your team coming back, it really helps out for the dressing room, for the drills and for the program.
“This way, they are almost like my assistant coaches. They know the program and they stand out as an example for the other players coming in.”
The system Gagne teaches to his team may be tweaked slightly, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the players he has available.
“There are always a few modifications here and there, in the offensive zone, in the defensive zone, depending on what clicks for us,” he said.
“But it will be something pretty much similar to what we have done in the past. It is a matter of applying pressure and continuing to play less in the defensize zone and more in the offensive zone.
“Puck possession has always been our key point. You can do different programs and you can adjust from there, but it won’t necessarily be a blueprint from last year.”
The coach is hoping to have somewhere between 25 and 30 players on hand for the start of training camp.
“It should be a good little evaluation and then we can go from there,” Gagne said.
“There are always some surprises, some players who catch our eye and we sign one or two guys from that little mini-camp.”
The Eskimos will return to the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls for the team’s main training camp and a four-game exhibition series against the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.